Vignettes From Africa - Extended Post

Posted by Ann Rabinowitz

The South African influence has been immense on the growth of other Jewish communities throughout the African continent including Kenya, Namibia (formerly German South West Africa), Zaire, Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia), and Zimbabwe (formerly Southern Rhodesia. In fact, many immigrants came to South Africa only to pass through to these other places where they built strong and energetic communities.

Various African countries such as Angola, Botswana (formerly Bechuanaland), Cabo Verde, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Lesotho (formerly Basutoland), Madeira, Malawi (formerly Nyasaland), Mauritius, Mozambique, Swaziland, Tanganyika (formerly German East Africa), Tanzania (formerly a combination of Tanganyika and Zanzibar), and Uganda, survived colonial rule with perhaps no remnant of Jewish influence or small or now extinct Jewish communities.

Basically, present day African Jews are struggling to maintain whatever communities they have managed to retain with some so much on the decline that they will or have totally disappeared; whilst others have gained a revitalized shot in the arm from new internationally-based businessmen, entrepreneurs and government officials who have been drawn to these countries by the vagaries of economics or war. Whatever their size or status, the African countries represent a colorful hybrid of Jewish life and are well worth noting.

What follows are a series of vignettes featuring a selection of these countries that deal with some of the events and people of long ago illustrating the connectivity of the African Jewish communities.

THE MUSIC OF EXILE – Cape Verde Islands

A barren place which was uninhabited until 1456, it was settled primarily by the Portuguese as a way station for provisioning vessels on their way to voyages of discovery in the New World and as a slavery outpost. The islands which number about ten, are three hundred miles off the coast of Africa, a two-hour flight from Dakar. They sit isolated, but serene, an idyllic footnote in the history of the Jews who fled the Inquisition and those who came afterwards from Morocco and Europe. Their cemeteries of Boa Vista, Ponto do Sol, Praia, Santiago, and Santo Antao, abound with names of Portuguese exiles and their presence is little seen now except for the rhythmic lull of the music of the islands.

The Portuguese brought with them their music, the fado; the beautifully evocative strains which were taken from the streets of Lisbon and with what some think have Jewish Sephardic roots. Listen carefully to this exquisitely beautiful music, so popularized by Amalia Rodrigues, and you will hear it.

When you have listened, then you realize that its legacy is also to be found in the Cape Verde music of today, the mourna, which resonates with the themes of nostalgia for home, immigration, and loss . . . all those things which the Portuguese Jews and others felt. At a recent concert given by Cape Verde’s most popular chanteuse, Casaria Evora, these themes were most evident and, I felt, the connection to that far-off time when Jews were despised and dispersed to the far corners of the world, even to Cape Verde in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

One day, not too long ago, I was given a small photograph of several people, all in either World War II Army kit or civilian clothes which was taken in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1942. What marked the photograph for me was the slender exotic dark man at the far left of the photograph, a poignant reminder of a culture that began with a Jewish king.

Who was this mighty king? Solomon, of course, and the story of his visit from the Queen of Sheba is well-known and the events that followed this meeting have brought much trauma and excitement even into our own 21th Century.

Wartime in Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, 1942

The man at the far left in the photograph above was most probably Israel Jacob, the President of the Dire Dawa Congregation, a leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community. He is shown with several Jewish men, all who had come to Ethiopia from either Europe or South Africa. Amongst them, from left to right was M. Ben Ari, who had been born in Palestine and came to Wynberg, South Africa in 1925 at the age of 18, and thence went to live in Cape Town; an unknown Polish Jew who came in 1932; Simie Weinstein from Oudtshoorn; an unknown German Jew who came in 1933; and Percy Berger, who was born in Kupiskis, Lithuania, and came to Cape Town. Such a polyglot of nationalities was represented, all in wartime Ethiopia.

It so happened that another Berger whose family was from Kupiskis changed the course of Israel Jacob’s people. He was Graenum Berger, who first met Ethiopian Jewish students at Kfar Batya, Israel, in 1955. He became so entranced by their history and culture that he spent the rest of his life in efforts such as Operation Solomon to bring them out of Ethiopia to Israel. His book Rescue the Ethiopian Jews! A Memoir, 1955-1995, tells of that struggle and its success.

Graenum Berger, Yona Bogale and Kessim (priests) at the Synagogue, Ambober, Ethiopia, 1965.

Now, in this decade and century, I find a cousin in Addis Ababa too. A British-born adventurer, Simon Winetroube, is a lawyer, educational administrator, and cultural disseminator, with a Bosnian-born wife, who is raising a baby in the steamy latitudes of a worn and fascinating ancient place. He is one of many Jewish newcomers intent on teaching, training and trading in this wild country and no less successful than those before him. I admire his grit and fortitude, his intelligence and knowledge of the people that permits him to live amongst them in harmony and respect.

Famed for the many books written and movies produced about her, Kenya has been in the forefront of African thought for generations. The Jews played an intimate role in her development and the Bloch family from Nairobi was one of these families. Owners of well-known hotels, a widespread occupation for Jews even in der heim, they were involved thoroughly in the local economy and social life.

Unfortunately, the family gained international attention when Dora Bloch, the 73-year-old widowed grandmother of the family was killed in 1976 after being dragged from a Kampala hospital in Uganda after Israeli commandoes raided Entebbe Airport. The rescue of 100 other Israelis came after they had been taken as hostages from a hijacked Air France plane.

In another place, in a room filled with books, we sat sipping cappuccino and chatting about Africa and our common relatives. Elliot Sachar mentioned his uncle and he told me the story of how he was involved with the famous incident at Gilgil, Kenya.

Gilgil, a sleepy village in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya, located between Naivasha and Nikuru, and eighty-two miles north of Nairobi, was the internment camp setup for Jewish prisoners of war, mostly Irgun’s top leadership, who had been arrested in Palestine for anti-British activities.

As I listened attentively, the story seemed to take on familiar dimensions and I felt the tug of memory. Then it hit me, it was the selfsame story as told to me by my cousin Ralph Yodaiken. As we sat at the table, I called Ralph on my mobile and asked him if he knew Bernard Wolf, Elliot’s erstwhile uncle.

Gilgil Camp, 1948

Yes, he did. He remembered that South African’s, including himself, had participated in the liberation of the Gilgil camp on March 28, 1948, and that Bernard had been instrumental in this effort. Bernard had been a pilot, but had acted as the driver called “Wilson” to help the escapees, Reuven Franco, Nathan Germant, Yaacov Hillel, Yaacov Meridor, Shlomo ben Shlomo, and David Yanai, leave the camp.

They had departed from Gilgil overland in a rented car and went onto Uganda where they crossed the border using five South African and one South American passport. From Uganda, they were then taken onto the Belgian Congo and from there to Brussels.

For both Bernard and Ralph, other wartime feats engrossed their energies. Their participation in the bricha to rescue some of the surviving Jews of Europe and bring them to Palestine was followed by service as South African machalniks during the 1948 Israeli War for Independence.

They had not seen each other since.

Now, fifty years later, following on the lead I’d given him, Ralph contacted Bernard in Cape Town and they enjoyed a pleasant reunion of mates, reminiscing about those old times and the adventures of their youth when Jews were fearless in their fight to defend their homeland of Palestine even in a faraway place called Gilgil, Kenya.

The graves of the one hundred or so Jews in the Cemeterjo Comunal Israelita in Maputo speak to the early settlement (1880-1940) in this distant Portuguese outpost by those fleeing the Inquisition and other forces. They were followed by Eastern Europeans who could not get into South Africa, those fleeing the Nazis, or those who came later from South Africa, some fleeing the apartheid regime.

Most well-known of the South Africa anti-apartheid exiles who found a refuge in Mocambique was Albie (Albert Louis) Sachs who was born in Johannesburg on January 30, 1935. An attorney, civil rights activist and leading member of the ANC, he was twice detained without trial by the Security Police before departing for exile in England. Returning to Africa in 1977, he chose Mozambique as his safe harbor.

Taking a position as Professor of Law at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo and subsequently, from 1983 to 1988, as Director of Research in the Mozambique Ministry of Justice, he fit in well until this idyllic existence was shattered by his near death experience in a car bombing. After an interlude in England and several other venues, he returned to the new South Africa, now serving as a Justice of the South African Constitutional Court.

Albie Sachs

In addition to Albie Sachs, there were Franny Rabkin and her two children; a couple who fled the dictatorship in Chile; and Jews who came from Europe and North America to work towards the reconstruction of Mocambique. While nominally Jewish, none of these actually became involved in forming a cohesive Jewish community.

Renewed interest in Jewish communal activities has surfaced in the past several years as Jewish tourists have visited this unique spot and others have settled in Mocambique for business purposes. There have even been non-Jews such as Alkis Macropolous who assisted in 1989 with the return to the Jewish community of the main synagogue in Maputo which was built in 1926. Its dramatic and extensive reconstruction has sparked further activity in the community. Despite this, it remains a transient place, a fading, yet flickering memory in the Jewish lexicon of the diaspora.

One of the most fascinating stories I heard as a child was from my uncle Max Hillman about his older brother Louis. The Hillman family came from a long line of rabbis stretching back to the 1400’s in Metz, France, and they belonged to the well-known Heilprin rabbinical dynasty which traced its lineage to Rashi and even to King David.

The Hillman family consisted of seven brothers and one sister. The oldest, Louis, became involved as a young man in activities which led to the 1905 Student Revolution which swept through Russia and was the harbinger of the later 1917 Russian Revolution. Hearing he was a marked man and also knowing that he was going to be conscripted, he fled his home in Bauska, Latvia, for the warmer and more hospitable climes of Johannesburg where he had Hillman and Tankelowitz relatives waiting for him.

A “greener”, Louis struggled to make his mark. He became a smous and rag dealer and came to know the towns and villages surrounding Johannesburg quite well. Seeing the difficulties of making a living in Johannesburg, he heard of better opportunities in Southwest Africa which was then a protectorate of the Germans. He spoke German fluently as Bauska, his home town in der heim, was also under the protection of the Germans and he had been schooled in that language. Seemed a good match.

By this time, Louis had inveigled some of his other brothers to join him in Africa as they too were eligible for the dreaded conscription and off they went to Windhoek.

Windhoek seemed quite an amenable place to them, a bit of wild and open, but being enterprising young men, they went about seeing what they could develop in terms of work. However, as they were just getting their bearings, for some reason, the German authorities became aware of Louis’ activities in Latvia. They grabbed him and he was taken off to jail posthaste. The Germans then decided to hang him summarily as he was considered a dangerous spy and draft evader.

As Louis stood upon the scaffold, he felt his life hanging by a thread. His brothers seeing his dilemma, conceived of a dramatic diversion and like the three musketeers of old, managed to drag him from the scaffold and spirited him away. Since it was a hurried escape with no prior planning, the four brothers never knew if they would make it back to Johannesburg alive, but after much travail, they did.

Upon their return to Johannesburg, they decided that they had enough of Africa. Their relatives helped them with passage and they left immediately for Panama where they heard there were good jobs to be had in the tanneries owned by Jews. It was possible then to save up enough capital to go onto America, the goldene medina or land of riches.

Finding jobs in Panama, they soon realized that the tanneries were held by despots who ruled the tanneries like slave plantations with the intention of never releasing their employees, no matter how much they earned. The system was abusive and the conditions worse than those in the sweatshops in New York. After much struggle, the Hillman brothers managed to save enough money to leave Panama and came to America in 1907, all the wiser for their aborted chance at riches in Africa and Latin America.

Chief Rabbi Moise Meir Levy, born in Athalya, Turkey, on August 12, 1915, lived a long and distinguished life, passing away in Brussels on September 29, 2003. Called “my rabbi” by King Baudouin of Belgium, he was first and foremost a Sephardic Jew whose family left Turkey following the Armistice in World War I for the Island of Rhodes where he studied for the rabbinate.

Rhodes, that little pinprick in the Mediterranean, was the cradle of a Jewish community stretching back many centuries. Jews from there came to South Africa in the 1920’s and slowly wandered northward to what was then the Belgian Congo and is today’s Zaire. Others from Eastern Europe had preceded them and the community then grew to approximately 2,500 Jews scattered about in eight small communities, the largest of which was Elizabethville (now Lumbasha).

Rabbi Levy was such a traveler to the Congo and he arrived there in 1937 to become rabbi of the congregation in Katanga which was made up primarily of Jews from Rhodes. He stayed and became the Chief Rabbi of the Congo and Rwanda-Burundi from 1937 to 1991. He was forced to leave Katanga in 1991, but remained the Chief Rabbi, an expatriate governing his community from his seat of exile in Belgium; a community that was now drawn back to South Africa, and onto America, Israel, and Belgium.

The Rabbi and wife Felicia Levy-Piha on their 65th wedding anniversary

When the Rhodean Jews came to the Congo, opportunities abounded with the natural resources a predominant feature of the economy. A comfortable niche was created for small traders and factors who could move easily along the trade routes and provide the necessary supplies to the newly emerging towns and villages. The Rhodean Jews settled in quite nicely and thrived and continued to bring in their relatives and friends. Others became attracted by the same opportunities and joined them.

The life they created was not to last, but they left with their memories intact of a time and place of special meaning among the riches of Central Africa.

He was born on the brink of the new century on April 2, 1899, a willing and eager participant in the great events to come. Leizer Abrahamson, the son of Abraham and Chaya Sheina Abrahamson, the youngest of ten Kasperowski siblings from Sczuczyn, a shtetl not too far from Bialystok, Poland, lived to see the great empire of Rhodesia fall and two new and energetic countries command the world stage in the form of Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Arriving in 1926, he has seen the growth and vibrancy of a Jewish community in Bulawayo that at one stage numbered approximately 3,000, and has now dwindled to less than 300 souls and which lost their oldest shul in a fire on October 4, 2003, of the past year, a shul he faithfully attended and assisted in leading the services of. What haven’t those eyes seen?

Further, his family has played a vital role in the development of Zimbabwe with his nephew Abe Abrahamson, the son of his brother Morris, who was born in Bulawayo in 1922, achieving not only commercial success, but the high office of Rhodesian Minister of Treasury & Local Government in 1958, and serving in the Rhodesian Parliament, 1953-1965. Recently, this role has expanded to include an autobiography detailing his many other accomplishments including those in the Jewish community.

Another man of this time was Abraham Benjamin Kavonic. A quiet introspective man, he had been born in Sheffield, England, in 1883, studied engineering and had come out to Oudtshoorn, South Africa, to seek his fortune. There he had met and married sixteen year old Lithuanian-born Rebecca Isserman. They moved to the Salisbury South (now Harare) area of Northern Mashonaland in Rhodesia, and their life revolved around their large tobacco-rich farms, laden with a crop that was difficult to cultivate and that required intense knowledge and hard work. Abraham expanded his farming interests to three farms, two of which he gave to his sons, and one he reserved for himself.

They did well until the mid-1970’s when the troubles began during the eventual ousting of Prime Minister Ian Smith which was to take place in 1980. Kay Samuel Isserman remembers her brother, Jack Samuel, sent his family into the city and stayed at the farm and actually slept in the passageway in the middle of the house as it was the safest place to avoid the guerilla bombs and other activities. There were anti-grenade sirens on the roof, double-barbed wire fencing surrounding the property and, at least, nine fierce weimaraner dogs patrolling the perimeter. Eventually, the family had their property confiscated and they left for America in 1980, their farming days at an end.

Kay Samuel Isserman also remembers that her father, Sydney Samuel, a dentist and a most creative soul, used to make for his children, toy trains and other items for their board games out of his dental fillings.

The Samuel children carried on the legacy of the ostrich feather business that came into the family from their Isserman relatives, and today, in Florida, Darren Samuel, a fourth generation of the family, born in Rhodesia, but living in the America since he was thirteen, ships multitudes of feathers to glamorize the costumes of Las Vegas showgirls and the uniforms of band members worldwide.

To add a Sephardic twist to the mix of people who came to Zimbabwe, there was the Elkaim family, whose roots were originally from Morocco. They had been in Palestine for many generations and the majority of the family still resided there. Chanan Elkaim arrived in Africa in 1933 at the port of Beira in Mozambique, having traveled from Palestine down the east coast of Africa. His plan was to find a job in Southern Rhodesia where he knew of a family friend, Ephraim Cohen, who was already living and working in Bulawayo.

Unfortunately, the immigration authorities in Southern Rhodesia were not very welcoming to Jews and so did not grant him the clearance to remain there. He then decided to go North and try his luck there. He boarded a train and arrived at the platform of Livingstone railway station in 1933, tired and thirsty from his long trek. Refused permission to stay in the country, he sat forlornly on the platform trying to determine what to do.

Suddenly, he heard a loud voice boom out to him, Du bist a Yid? The person who called to him was a giant of a man, over 250 pounds, who looked at him kindly from the other end of the platform. He replied that he was and the man, a fellow Jew, then offered to use his good relations with the immigration officials to allow Chanan to continue on his way north to opportunities in Ndola in the Copperbelt.

As it turned out, the man was in the taxi business and was at the station daily. He had become very friendly with the immigration staff and others there too including Sir Roy Welensky, born a Jew, who was a fireman for Rhodesia Railways in those days, and later became the architect of the Rhodesia and Nyasaland Federation and its last Prime Minister from 1956 to 1963.

The man helped where he could and later was much assistance to the refugees who came through the station prior to World War II. On one occasion, an immigration official asked whether the man would stand guarantee for these immigrants. The man convinced the official that there was no need for any guarantees, because the Jewish communities of the various small towns in Northern Rhodesia would take care of each and every one of them until they were able to fend for themselves. And, this indeed, happened.

Chanan arrived in Ndola and thrived there and eventually became a successful road contractor among other things. He was responsible for constructing all of the intertown roads all over the Copperbelt. He married and brought up three very talented children. He donated very generously to deserving causes all over Northern Rhodesia/Zambia and was later awarded Zambia’s highest medal of distinction for his outstanding generosity and service to the community, by Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, the then President of Zambia.

In 1953, when he returned to Israel for his mother’s funeral, he suggested that his nephew Avner should join him in Africa to work and thereby help support his family financially. At the age of twenty-two, Avner arrived in Ndola in April, 1954.

Sometime later, at a social get-together held on July 16, 1954, at the home of Mrs. Kapulski whose husband was related to the famous Israeli bakers, Kapulski Brothers, Avner was to meet his beshert. She was a young woman who had been sent to Ndola for a two week stay to organize Zionist Youth/Habonim activities. Avner was of two minds whether to attend the get-together as it was Friday night. He had intended spending it with his aunt and uncle, until they decided to go to bed. Eventually, he did go and spent the evening chatting in Hebrew with the young woman.

When he returned home, he told his Uncle Chanan he had met a beautiful young woman who spoke Hebrew. Uncle Chanan was most pleased and asked who the girl was. “Oh, her name is Ronnie and she is the daughter of a Joe Furmanovsky”, he said. Joe Furmanovsky . . . that was the taxi driver that had met Uncle Chanan on the platform in Livingstone those many years ago and given him the first start towards his new life in Rhodesia. What a coincidence!!!

The Furmanovskys have also left a legacy of another sort as a granddaughter, Jill Furmanovsky, has spent her thirty year career jetting around the world photographing rock stars and other celebrities such as Blondie, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, Mick Jagger, Oasis, Pink Floyd, The Police, and The Pretenders. Her intimate photographs have an intensity and insight into the souls of those pictured that enlighten and astound the viewer.

Jill Furmanovsky

Her father, Jack, son of Joe Furmanovsky, is a well-known architect who designed the new addition to the Shul in Bulawayo that burned to the ground in 2003. He now practices in London, his beautiful buildings left behind in the old Rhodesia. Who will maintain and love them now?

To the following individuals for their kind assistance and contributions to this article: Abe Abrahamson, Emma Berger, Michael Berger, Percy Berger, Linda Cantor, Ilan Elkaim, Ronnie Furmanovsky Elkaim, Mary Hillman, Kay Samuel Isserman, Dr. Saul Issroff, Roy Ogus, Rena Abrahamson Reiff, Elliot Sachar, Albie Sachs, Warren Winetroube, Bernard Wolf, and Dr. Ralph Yodaiken. And, to the memory of my uncle Max Hillman and my father William Samuel Rabinowitz, who first opened my eyes to the beauty of Africa and its people.

(Originally published in “Jewish Affairs”, Vol. 59, No. 2, Winter, 2004, Johannesburg, SA)

1 comment:

  1. You make reference to Franny Rabkin and her two children in Mozambique. You mean Sue,whose husband was in prison in South Africa. Franny was a child in Mozambique with her mother Sue, and brother Job. They had to leave Mozambique and move to Lusaka aftger the signing of the Komati Accord. David, was killed after his release from prison in Angola.


Comments are welcome. Please post responsibly.